« 14. How to engage an audience on a serious topic »

Written by Rachel Green. Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute. She is the author of "Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking" and is one of only 800 people in the world with the highest level of accreditation in the professional speaking industry - CSP - Certified Speaking Professional.

Presentation skills and emotional intelligence go together. Can you engage the audience you are speaking to? It's an essential skill to have and it involves emotions.

Serious topics need to be presented with sincerity

Whether your topic is serious or trivial, light-hearted or important, if you don't engage your audience you are wasting your time.

The ability to engage an audience requires a high level of emotional intelligence.

Why? Because you have to manage your own emotions AND manage the emotions of your audience. Feeling engaged is an emotion. When the audience feels engaged with your speech they are having an emotional response to it.

Too often presenters think that a presentation is all about content. It's not.

You may be delivering information but it only impacts when the audience has an emotional reaction to it and becomes engaged with it.

So how can you engage an audience even on a serious topic and maintain the integrity of your topic? These tips are based on the video of the apology speech given by former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, when she was Prime Minister:

Emotional intelligence tip 1: Speak from the heart.

Too often people speak from a piece of paper. Time and time again I see and hear people delivering important messages reading them from pre-prepared scripts and with a disengaged heart.

Sometimes the audience will engage far more with you when you make a heartfelt connection with them. You don't have to be word perfect. You don't have to be error free. Instead, talk from the heart and connect heart to heart. Engagement is a feeling. Feelings come from the heart.

The former Prime Minister certainly has some emotion in her voice.

At times it weakens, at other times it gets stronger and even her voice quavers when she says "sorry". It adds meaning.

The same happens when she says "many, many lives" around 2.14:

"We acknowledge your loss and grief. We recognise that the consequences of forced adoption practices continue to resonate through many, many lives. To your siblings grandparents, partners, and other family members, who have shared in the pain and suffering of your loved ones, or who were unable to share their lives, we say sorry".

Depth of feeling can connect and engage an audience deeply.

Look at this audience. They are getting the message. They are engaged.

Want to engage your audience more easily and make your presentations more interesting? Book into our public speaking development package.

Emotional intelligence tip 2: Use "you".

Speak personally to the audience. The Prime Minister does this consistently and very well. For example, she refers to "you" and "your".

For instance, near the beginning she says, "That denied you, the mothers, of your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children".

This engages an audience because you are talking to each one of them. You are speaking one-on-one, heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind. You are never speaking to a group; there are only ever an individual set of ears hearing you. Talk to each individual. Use "you" and "your" not "the people" or "viewers" or "all mothers".

Emotional intelligence tip 3: Pause.

Pausing lets information sink in. Pausing allows people in the audience to absorb and reflect on what is being said. This is very important when the message is of such a serious nature and such a sombre tone.

I would have recommended that the former Prime Minister pause for even longer at highly crucial places. For example, after saying "subjected you to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice, we apologise". She dropped her voice at this point, allowed her inflections to lower and paused. All this was excellent and meaningful.

An even longer pause, (at around 0.33), for example, would have emphasised even more the sincerity and importance of the apology.

When we are up on stage a short pause can seem like an eternity. However, to the audience a pause can seem much shorter. The basic guideline is the larger the audience the longer the pause needs to be to have maximum effect and engagement.

Emotional intelligence tip 4: Use "I".

I wanted the former Prime Minister to use "I" rather than "we" during the apology. She, as our head of state, was our representative so I don't think she needed to say "we" all the way through. Instead, I would have liked her to have personally owned the apology on our behalf by saying "I apologise". This could have been done on behalf of "we".

For example, she could have said, "As the Prime Minister of Australia, I apologise and I apologise not only from my own heart but on behalf of the Parliament and everyone in Australia".

However, I must admit that at the very end "we" worked very powerfully. "For those who fought for the truth to be heard, we hear you now." This was brilliant.

There is no one right way to engage an audience; there are many ways.

Want to improve your confidence as a public speaker so your audience wants to listen to you? Book into our public speaking development package

Emotional intelligence tip 5: Name the elephant in the room.

The former Prime Minister uses strong language as she describes what happened to the mothers she was talking to. "You were yourselves deprived of care and support. To you, the mothers who were betrayed by a system that gave you no choice and subjected you to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice, we apologise."

Audiences like to hear it as it really is. They don't want some wishy-washy description. If there is heartache they are helped by hearing the heartache being named. If they feel vulnerable, helpless or thwarted, they want to hear that acknowledged. It engages an audience.

They know you understand them. They know you have heard them. They hear your courage in naming it.

The result of all this is an audience that is more likely to engage with you and hear your message.

It's so easy to try and step away from the emotions of an audience and to try and pretend that everything is okay or to smooth things over. But if things are not okay you will lose credibility with the audience if you do this. Instead, have the ability to explain that you understand the audience. This will increase your ability to engage them.

Just in case you have any doubt about this, listen to the segment in the speech leading up to 0.56. The audience claps and cheers in response to hearing this: "You were given false assurances, you were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal." At this point the audience breaks out into spontaneous applause. Yes, the words had hit 100% engagement. A softer version would not have worked nearly as well.

How to improve your public speaking now.

Can you afford to have you or your team unable to engage their audiences? No! Organisations need to be represented by engaging speakers in order to get their message across as swiftly and effectively as possible. This applies to you if you are an executive or a manager too - do not bore your employees, your stakeholders or your board. We have a number of options to help you:

  1. Book into our public speaking development package.
  2. There is a definitive guide: "The beginners guide to being a brilliant MC".
  3. Read the book "Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking".

For more details or to make a booking e-mail us now or pick up the phone and call us.